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Amazon, Kindle textbooks sued on behalf of the visually impaired

February 10, 2010 1 comment
Kindle Textbooks

The perfect replacement for textbooks?

When I think of potential uses for e-readers, the first thing that comes to mind is a replacement for textbooks. Texts tend to be large, heavy, expensive and — most importantly for the skimmer in all of us — not keyword searchable.

Amazon’s Kindle would be the perfect device to change all that. College students could load all their textbooks for the semester onto the Kindle and carry it with them wherever they go. Any off-time riding the bus or between classes becomes potential study time. The added convenience lies in the fact that you have every textbook with you at once — no need to plan.

As a student who commutes to many of my classes, I know personally the challenges of deciding what book deserves to be hauled around all day for the unlikely scenario that I have some extra time. Many times, I’ll opt for a lighter book, even if I really need to study for a different class.

The other pop to convenience comes from searchability. E-readers like the Kindle bring CTRL-F to any textbook, making it easy for students to search for the passages they need based on keywords. To some extent, this feature is also available on Google Books, which offers a limited search for free.

With all these features, Kindle seems destined for the classroom, right?

Wrong — at least until all the legality gets settled. In response to a pilot program introducing Kindles to certain classrooms at Arizona State University last fall, The National Federation of the Blind and the American Council of the Blind filed a joint lawsuit against ASU and the Arizona Board of Regents. The organizations claimed using Kindle in the classroom violated the Americans with Disabilities Act and Rehabilitation Act because, while the Kindle does sport a text-to-speech program, the device’s menus are still inaccessible to the visually impaired. ASU settled with the two organizations last month and, as a result, halted the program until access could be improved.

This sounds like an easy fix: just add a text-to-speech navigation feature. However, this incident exemplifies a common problem with new technology as it enters the market. All innovation faces  troubles integrating into the existing infrastructure and law. The key challenge becomes adapting to and changing that infrastructure. These kinds of field tests provide companies like Amazon a clear goal for functionality that they obviously overlooked.

The suit caused Amazon to quickly promise audible menus. In fact, they announced that by summer 2010, the company would release the “Kindle Blind” for the visually impaired — a move that other companies, if they’re smart, won’t miss out on either.

The bottom line: getting people to switch over will be hard, which is why e-reader companies need to cram as many features into those little devices as possible.

And it makes good market sense too. After all, if you’re trying to revolutionize the publishing industry, why not revolutionize the Braille publishing industry too?

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